Boston native and “We Love You, Charlie Freeman” author Kaitlyn Greenidge’s second novel feels familiar but tells a relatively unknown story. Libertie, the book’s title character, is born free but dark in the 1850s to a former slave and a doctor. Her identity is formed by the hopes and expectations of her parents — her father, who died when she was an infant, named her after what he wanted more than anything in the world: freedom. Her mother wants her to surpass the roles that were typical to Black women at the time — to triumph over temptation, to be educated and well-practiced.
The novel begins with magic and a childlike reverence; Libertie’s mother, Dr. Sampson, brings a man back to life. Well she didn’t, not really, but the idea gets you hooked. And by the time you realize she’s just a doctor and the man who was “dead” escaped slavery in a coffin, you’ve met Ben Daisy, the most heartbreaking character of them all.
Greenidge is a master of character building, and Ben Daisy, with his endless (and, at times, pathetic) love for a dead woman, is just one example. Libertie is a woman looking for a calling — her mother wants her to be a doctor, but won’t defend Libertie when her white patients are disgusted by her darkness. When Libertie goes to college to continue trying to fulfill her mother’s dream, she finds two girls who feel like home — but there’s no room for Libertie in their relationship. So when she meets Emmanuel, a man studying under her mother, who says they’re equals, that he loves her and likens her to his gods, she thinks she’s finally found her purpose, salvation. Like most things that seem too good to be true, this salvation fails.
That’s a constant theme in “Libertie” — some characters search for healing and end up with nothing at all, while others try to heal other people and also end with nothing. The first tension of the novel is Dr. Sampson failing to heal. She’s meant to be infallible, Libertie’s mother. She’s light-skinned, smart, relatively wealthy, practically runs their small Black town. But when she tries to heal Ben Daisy and other people with severe PTSD from slavery, she fails. Seeing her role model falter shapes Libertie — once again, there’s that familiar feeling: realizing parents are flawed and wondering whether that perfection we’ve idolized even exists.
“Libertie” is set in the midst of the Civil War, but the place and time these characters are in doesn’t make them unfamiliar. This novel mainly takes place between Black people. Colorism and class are persistent tensions between people in “Libertie,” as they are today. In many instances in the novel, though, traditional roles are flipped. The blatant sexism of the time doesn’t show up on the page until the book’s latter half.
In the second half of “Libertie,” she moves to Haiti with her Emmanuel in an effort to, again, find a place she belongs. Her relationship with education and her mother has crumbled into painfully unforgettable pieces and Haiti is an unknown promise.
There are whispered rumors about Haiti, that it’s a land of uncivilized Blackness but freedom. That it’s the future. It’s easy to put hopes into a fantasy, but it’s even harder to realize that fantasy is a fallacy. In Haiti, Libertie is once again showed promises of freedom and the reality of pain.
“Libertie’' is an easy page turner — its simple prose makes the plot digestible and the lyrical sentences sing louder. Libertie’s most intimate moments happen when she’s alone, lost in thought. The words are plain and then she asks, “Was freedom worth it if you still ached like that? If you were still bound to this earth by desire?” I had to pause, reading once, twice again, before pouring back into the book.
Because the book is written in the first person, readers are allowed to get intimate with Libertie’s thoughts. She keeps so much of the way she thinks hidden from other characters (for a myriad of reasons), that it’s an intimate joy to get a glimpse into her logical, sympathetic mind. When mourning the loss of another character, Libertie adjusts her perspective: “Care, I decided, was monstrous.” Although she never shares that realization with another character, I doubt a single reader would disagree.
At times, I could predict how she would react because I felt I knew her so well. She’s someone I saw myself in, and like most historical novels written about Black women, thanked God I would never be. The beauty of this novel is in that realization. Libertie didn’t know what freedom was, but she knew she deserved more than what was given her. So at the end of the novel, when she makes her final decision, I know she didn’t turn back.
“Libertie” combines race, colorism, history, and sexism with the utter human pain of lostness. It’s a beautiful telling of gorgeously tragic characters who keep you rooting for them, even as they continue to stray and stray and stray.
Natachi Onwuamaegbu is an arts and culture writer. Follow her on Twitter @natachio.
By Kaitlyn Greenidge
Algonquin Books, 336 pages, $26.95
Natachi Onwuamaegbu can be reached at email@example.com.